Waiting to talk is not Listening

Pick your management guru and each will say, listen.

  • Stephen Covey: “Pass the torch and listen.”
  • Susan Scott: “Waiting to talk is not listening.”
  • Keith Ferrazzi: “When you ask someone’s opinion, your next job is to listen and give a damn.”
  • Marshall Goldsmith: “Let go of ‘yes, but…’ – stop adding too much value and listen.”
  • Tim Sanders: “Recognize and welcome appreciation with a simple Thank you.”
  • Warren Bennis: “Ask a probing question and then listen.”
  • David Whyte: “The conversation IS the relationship.”

Mark Goulston‘s new book, Just Listen, seeks to help people build stronger and more creative relationships through the power of deep listening.  Once you’ve been patient and thoughtful to learn effective listening skills, he says there are a few things you can do to encourage open listening in those you are speaking with.  Often when presenting a new or provocative idea, your audience may metaphorically cross their arms in their mind.  Even if they don’t provide any physical clues as to their position or opinion, if you can get them to gesticulate and open up in their posture and body language, their opinion is likely to follow.  A simple mechanism is to ask, “Can you show me what you mean by that?  Can you draw it for me?”  By asking for an illustration, it will engage their visual and creative energy and they are more likely to open their mind to new ideas.  Also by asking a provocative question, you’ll sharpen their listening skills because they understand you expect them to be active participant in the conversation, and not simply waiting to talk.  The tip is: get your audience to open up their posture and their mind will follow.

We all have new tricks to share

Last week we did a gig with Keith Ferrazzi in Philly at SAP – webcast and satellite event to about 20,000 people around the world (although I’m guessing our friends in Singapore might not have stayed up to see it live…).  It was my second interaction with him and again I learned something new (this post was the first).  Before the live broadcast he was generous enough to spend about 25 minutes interacting with the studio audience of about 200 or so people in the local studio at SAP and he opened with a riff about recognizing our prejudices.

His point was that each of us upon initial interaction have prejudices we bring to the table.  Before most introductions we come with pre-conceived notions about who that person is – based on their looks, their title – whatever.  He has a funny ice-breaker in which he picks out someone in the audience and throws out a typecast.  That morning he picked a white guy in the front row and brought some laughs about how that person was probably an Irish beer-drinking, weekend golf hacker, etc…  The routine isn’t crass, he is also making fun of himself as he comes from a humble Pittsburgh background and has himself worked through such prejudices.  The point, of course, is when you open yourself to the possibility that each person can bring interesting, valuable insights to the conversation, you can create the possibility of instant intimacy in that moment.  Keith is inviting people to discard prejudices to then find and build powerful new relationships.

Ok – so that’s clear and obvious enough, but I started thinking about how long-time entrenched relationships can also be leaden with existing preconceptions you may have with the people you already know very well.  You can almost hear your mind say, “here she goes again” when the professional you know so well starts to weigh in on a conversation.  Consider your next meeting in which your long-time colleague starts in with, “In my opinion…” and halt your prejudices for a moment.  Just halt your expectations for a moment.  Your inclination might be to anticipate their point of view and shut off your mind to what they might contribute.

Don Sull, whom we interviewed last year at London Business School, makes a compelling case that organizational leaders need to lean far on the side of invitational openness in discussions in order to allow all voices at the table to contibute clearly and openly.  If the goal is to find a solution somewhere between linear command-and-control and unregulated chaos, a leader needs to err on the side of openness to bring the best ideas to the table.  The lesson here is to curb your prejudices not only in new interactions, but also among those fellow colleagues whom you may have known for a long time.  If we believe we have the capacity to grow in our thinking, have the similar mindset when listening to trusted colleagues.  We all have new tricks to share.

Lead with vulnerability

We recently did a filming engagement with Keith Ferrazzi and of all his key insights and ideas, one struck me the most. Keith encourages the concept of leading with vulnerability when establishing a new relationship or deepening an existing relationship. Ever feel as if you’ve worked side by side with someone for years and you’re still not sure you really know them? Everyone has these kinds of relationships with variable depth and perhaps the first inclination is to ask more questions, probe more deeply, you know – try to get them to open up. Keith’s advice is the opposite – he says lead with vulnerability. Share something important, profound, memorable to you, and by doing so you’ll inspire empathy, familiarity and understanding.

Here is a rap I wrote about some of Keith’s ideas – enjoy!
This is also a build on a previous post about Susan Scott and her mantra ‘the conversation is the relationship.’ She has an amusing illustration about a young couple. One day the newly-wed wife approaches her husband and wants to address a number of issues and concerns she feels outstanding. He listens intently and pledges to change his behaviors, his habits to be more accommodating. Time goes by, and she approaches him again and wants to talk. Again he listens closely and hears the same concerns and says abruptly, “We’ve already been through that!” and promptly changes the conversation. Over time, she initiates a similar conversation and he responds with the same response about how he already fixed that and it’s time to move on. She feels ignored and he feels like she didn’t recognize his initial efforts. Until one day he understands the conversation is the relationship. It’s every day, in every interaction, that the relationship takes place. As Susan Scott learned in The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, he realizes that his understanding came gradually, gradually, then suddenly.

Leadership Presence – Focus on the moment

By now, most folks following the news and the blogosphere have caught the brief perishable news of President Obama’s tone-deaf gift of a DVD set to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

“After Brown presented Obama with a pen holder crafted from the timbers of the 19th century British warship HMS President (whose sister ship, HMS Resolute, provided the wood for the Oval Office’s desk), Obama offered up … 25 DVDs of American movie classics.”

Ok, so not necessarily a quid pro quo, but I suspect President Obama chose this gift personally, without the sage advise of White House Social Secretary, Desirée Rogers.  Or we hope so.  We don’t believe this incongruent gesture will lead to overly upset international relations, but he could be reminded of a lesson from Susan Scott on Taking One Conversation at a Time.

Consistently, in all the interviews and filming engagements we have conducted, leaders who have made a marked difference in their teams, their organizations, have all emphasized the importance of being present and engaging wholly in each interaction.  A common sentiment among people led by people who inspire them is that each time they engage their leaders – internal or elsewhere – is that they feel, in that moment, that they are they only person that matters.  Consistently I’ve heard people say that when they have the rare opportunity to talk to Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Immelt, Al Gore, or (pick your luminary, your killer chance encounter), they feel in that moment as if their interests, their concerns are all that matters, and that they are genuinely ‘heard.’  Although I’m not sure Gordon Brown walked away feeling slighted, the UK media jumped all over it, as well as nations witnessing the transaction.

To build trust: Be more interested than interesting

Mark Goulston, author of Get Out of Your Own Way at Work, taught me something recently. We met while collaborating on a speaking project with Keith Ferrazzi (more on that great event later!) and he struck me as someone who can quietly observe human interaction and then offer marvelous insight.

Mark told a story of interviewing a CEO to learn of his company’s trials and efforts and how the CEO was working to affect substantial change.  Ostensibly Mark had this interview to offer his services and gain a consulting relationship to help galvanize the key executives and help them find the right path to success. While the CEO was telling his story, Mark counted 10 times in which he was tempted to interrupt and offer some keen insight and show that he knew at each stage of the narrative he understood clearly what the company and CEO was going through and how he could help. But instead of offering direction and insight, he said “Tell me more” or “Yes, please go on.” Each time that he felt compelled to intervene in the story and offer thoughts and insights, he paused and instead used ‘deepening’ words to encourage the CEO in his story. At the end, Mark simply reiterated what he heard and waited for acknowledgment – “Yes, that’s what happened,”or “Yes, that’s what I meant.”  By the end, the CEO felt wholly heard and understood and Mark had built a relationship of trust and mutual understanding. He didn’t try to solve each emerging issue as it came up, but instead encouraged and deepened the conversation. The CEO left the conversation feeling he had been heard and fully understood and Mark got the job to help redirect and support the change initiative.

Mark claims he learned this from Warren Bennis when participating in an evening of high-powered professionals and intellectuals. Same story – while the participants at the dinner were busily thinking of their next powerful insight to offer, Warren Bennis listened and only interjected to pinpoint key ideas and ask the players to elaborate on their insights. The discussion deepened and each felt sincerely heard and understood – because they were. Because in that instance and in Mark’s interaction with the CEO, they really were heard.

His lesson (and the similar lesson from Warren Bennis and Marshall Goldsmith) is this: Stop adding too much value. Slow down and listen. Be more interested than interesting. Sometimes in our efforts to display our brilliance we get preoccupied with what we are going to say to impress and lose sight of the message being said. By remaining interested and engaged, anyone you are talking to will feel they are heard and will offer more trust and the relationship will deepen.

Be aware of your emotional wake

Fierce ConversationsRecently I enjoyed an afternoon interviewing and filming Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations. She had several important stories and lessons that stick with me today but in particular her awareness of “emotional wake” was poignant. Your emotional wake is the psychological ripples you leave which imprint every interaction and relationship, and can have relationship effects far into the future.

For example, Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks once told me a story of a mentor he had long ago when in the furniture business. Howard said he always loved furniture architecture and construction and greatly enjoyed helping people choose furniture and design living spaces. His boss and mentor at the time once asked him, “Howard, is it furniture or people that you love?” He had always thought it was the furniture, but in that moment he understood it was really his love of sharing his knowledge and appreciation of furniture with other people. That small question and interaction guided a lifetime of choices and understanding for him.

Most often we aren’t even aware of the lasting impact small behaviors or comments can have. Recently I was traveling on business in Seattle and staying with an old close friend Jason and his wife and family. I called my wife to say our friends are happy and well with their beautiful daughters and she told me a detailed story of how she always had such a wonderful impression of Jason because of a time almost twenty years ago when he went out of his way to make her feel welcome and invited among a strange and new group of people. Jason has no recollection of this whatsoever – but his kindness for fifteen minutes twenty years ago is the reason my wife has the lasting impression that he is a fantastic person. And she hasn’t even seen him in almost ten years.

This is how powerful your emotional wake can be. And it isn’t confined to direct interactions – see Tim Sanders on the lasting negative impact of copying an email over someone’s head.

Always be opening

michael_port2.jpgABC – always be closing. If you’re in sales, you’ve heard that numerous times, most famously maybe from Glengarry Glen Ross. Unless you’re selling lemonade on the street corner – and even if – this is no way to go about building relationships of integrity that will sustain. The most powerful way to build business relationships is to approach with openness and sincere interest in providing constructive solutions that can aid or help or support whomever you are interacting with. Michael Port learned this long ago and has been providing this message of generosity in business to build sustainable relationships for some time now. This is an important mental orientation to start with, but it’s not enough. Once you understand how to listen clearly and collaboratively help solve your customers’ business problems, then you need to get focused on identifying and collaborating with only those organizations and customers who truly allow you to do your best work – that allow you to shine. Here Michael explains what he means by the Red Velvet Rope Policy. Enjoy!